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Displaced, Disappeared, Dehumanized: What's Happening To The Children Of Migrants And Refugees?

10/12/2017 12:49 EDT | Updated 10/14/2017 20:26 EDT

Each day, more than 28,000 people are forced to flee their homes because of conflict or persecution. To believe that migrants and refugees are somehow different and worlds apart from you or me would be wrong; like us they want to live in peace, care for their children and love one another. No one yearns to be uprooted from their place of birth, risk life and limb to arrive in a foreign land and begin again with nothing. Unfortunately we can’t control the wars, political unrest, poverty or natural disasters that force people to migrate. We can, however, control our attitudes and policies toward migrants and, thus, help reduce the dangers associated with migration.

One of the most tragic and underreported consequences of extraordinary levels of forced migration around the globe is the commercial exploitation of children for the purposes of sex and labor. My friend Robert Bilheimer—who is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker focusing on global human rights issues—produced and directed the acclaimed documentary, Not My Life, the first film to depict the horrors and ubiquity of human trafficking on a global scale. He is now making a companion piece to this film, Heart of the Matter.

Robert: First of all, Bob, I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about human trafficking and I get frustrated when many of them reinforce false or clichéd narratives on the subject. Not My Life got it right in a very poignant way. I’m excited about this project on the trafficking of migrant children, but I’m also a little afraid of what I’ll see. When and why did you decide to work on this particular aspect of modern slavery?

Bob: Thanks Robert. I started thinking about this when we were making Not My Life, because it was so immediately apparent that traffickers and slaveholders fish in the deepest pools of vulnerable populations they can find.

Robert: And now they’ve found millions of migrants and refugees—not a pool, but an ocean.

Bob: Precisely.

On the one hand we have the mega-trend of global migration, with more than 65 million children, women and men displaced from their homes by war, poverty, famine, climate change and, as we have seen most recently with Rohingyas, ethnic violence. Mass migration is a long-term, complex global phenomenon that goes to the heart of how we will define ourselves as a human civilization in the 21st century—and beyond.

On the other hand is the virtually unimpeded flourishing of the $150 billion global human trafficking and slavery industry, whose business model is built around the core notion that human lives—especially children’s lives-- simply do not matter. For modern slaveholders, migrants and refugees represent a virtually limitless supply of hard, cold cash. Nothing more.

Robert: This sounds dangerous and to a degree unmatched, as far as I know, in modern human rights history.

Bob: Correct on both counts. What we are seeing now is the intersection of these two forces: the vulnerability of large-scale, displaced populations on the one hand, and unbridled greed and amorality on the other. What this leaves us with is a deadly and rapidly metastasizing cancer on the body politic, with no relief in sight.

Robert: Who are the primary victims of these crimes and who are the predators?

Bob: The victims are mostly children, especially unaccompanied minors, tens of thousands of whom have disappeared over the last two years in the EU alone. But also women and men of all ages for any given aspect of the industry: sex, industrial and farm labor, domestic servitude, begging, organ harvesting (increasingly), and other forms of enslavement and exploitation.

On the predator side, we are looking at a highly coordinated global network of smugglers, facilitators, agents, middlemen, terrorists, petty criminals, and syndicated crime bosses at the highest level, including the mafia. People often think that smuggling— the delivery, for a steep price, of a child or a family from point A to point B-- is what modern slavery and human trafficking is all about. But smuggling is only the first step in a process of exploitation and degradation that eventually strips migrants and refugees of their dignity, their health, their loved ones, and any sense they may have had of themselves as human beings.

Worldwide Documentaries
Bob Bilheimer speaks with a refugee in Calais

Robert: Can you share one of the stories you came across while filming Heart of the Matter?

Bob: We had done some filming in a camp called the “Jungle”, in Calais, France, a week or so before it was destroyed by the French authorities. One Syrian refugee I met in the Jungle suggested that when I got back to Paris I should check out the northwest entrance of the Gare du Nord train station. “Why?” I asked him. “You’ll see,” he told me. When our train from Calais pulled in, I did as he told me, and lingered by the entrance for an hour or so. Almost immediately, a pattern emerged: a few young boys would emerge at intervals from a recess near the entrance, cross the busy parking area, disappear down a side street for ten minutes or so, then return to the station’s entrance, only to re-emerge five or ten minutes letter and do the same thing all over again. I was later told that these boys were Syrian and Iraqi sex slaves, and that during the hour I observed them, they had probably “earned” 100 Euros for their trafficker. At 10 hours a day, that’s 365,000 Euros a year—just with a few boys at the Gard du Nord! Such are the profits to be made when a child’s life simply doesn’t matter any more.

Robert: What kind of law enforcement or UN presence is there at this intersection of migration and slavery that you describe?

Bob: I have spoken with the FBI, Interpol, and other law enforcement agencies around the world. The bottom line is this: there are no countries where the enslavement of migrants and refugees is a government priority. Therefore there is no money, no training, and an infinitely small number of arrests, prosecutions, trials, and sentences. The traffickers know this, of course. They have free rein everywhere.

The same holds true for the UN agencies and NGOs: virtually all are understaffed, under-financed, and pushed to the limit. Absence of financial resources, for instance, has plagued the Rohingya crisis from day one, already resulting in the disappearance of hundreds of children into the hands of traffickers—and it’s been less than a month since these victims started pouring into Cox’s Bazar.

Robert: Are we looking at a losing battle here?

Bob: Remember that great line from W.B. Yeats? The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. There you have it. If this is a war between good and evil, the bad guys outnumber the good guys by a thousand to one, if not more. And they’re better organized, better financed, and much more dedicated to their cause than the good guys. It really is frightening.

Robert: Yeats’ The Second Coming also helped Chinua Achebe imagine his powerful book called, Things Fall Apart in the setting of Nigeria. Aside from anxiously awaiting the release of your documentary, what can people who care about this issue do? Is there any way for someone to participate in your work?

Bob: I always remember something Kofi Annan said to me when I interviewed him about the global AIDS epidemic for our film A Closer Walk: “We can all do something according to who we are.” It’s a deceptively simple answer, but a perfect one. Any act of compassion, or solidarity, or resistance is ultimately an act of self-definition. I am, therefore I act.

Robert: In the trailer, you ask the question, “What kind of people do we want to be?” Is that the heart of the matter?

Bob: Absolutely. We all need to ask, and answer, this question before it’s too late. I’m worried that it’s getting to be too late already.

Robert: Thanks for joining me, Bob. I have no doubt this will be another amazing film. You can follow or reach out to either of Bob’s film on human trafficking on Twitter @notmylifefilm and @heartomfilm.

Follow me on Twitter @RobertjBenz

The Second Coming